New Story Collections Reconsider History and Upend Tradition
THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS
By Danielle Evans
269 pp. Riverhead. $27.
Evans’s latest story collection reflects on recent mythologies surrounding American race relations. In “Happily Ever After,” a Black woman working at a Titanic-themed hotel must make herself scarce during birthday parties (“We’d hate for the 6-year-old having tea parties on the Titanic to get the wrong idea about history,” says her boss). In “Boys Go to Jupiter,” a white college student turns into a poster girl for American historical amnesia when a photo of her in a Confederate-flag bikini goes viral.
The author rewrites the official record by way of fiction. Evans is particularly gifted at depicting character, especially female protagonists. That “Boys Go to Jupiter” unfolds through the student’s rich back story feels neither like sympathetic projection nor like punishment. Instead, this tale of social media cancellation approaches something closer to critical objectivity. In contrast, Evans’s Black female characters often start out on the periphery: The worker at the Titanic hotel muses that “she was backdrop.” Literature offers a kind of corrective to history by drawing these figures into the foreground.
Evans’s propulsive narratives read as though they’re getting away with something, building what feel like novelistic plots onto the short story’s modest real estate. No surprise, then, that this collection concludes with its title novella, about a Black professor who quits her job to work for the city government, correcting factual mistakes in the public record. The story marries Melvillian mundanity with melodramatic suspense. I could have kept reading for pages.
By Scholastique Mukasonga
Translated by Jordan Stump
110 pp. Archipelago. Paper, $18.
“Igifu” depicts the lives of Rwanda’s Tutsis from their exile in the 1960s to the genocide of the ’90s. These stories follow the broad strokes of the author’s own life, though, unlike Mukasonga’s prior books “Cockroaches” and “The Barefoot Woman,” they are less explicitly autobiographical. Instead, she mediates the personal through fable to convey the sense of a collective past.
In the title story, “Igifu” is personified as “Hunger, given to us at birth like a cruel guardian angel.” Writing in the second person, the author asks readers to inhabit not just the narrator’s story, but her people’s. “You were a displaced little girl like me,” the story begins, “sent off to Nyamata for being a Tutsi.” In a later tale, we meet an uprooted Tutsi child who tries to organize memories of growing up in Nyamata into degrees of fear, ranging from “great fear” to “everyday fear.”
Mukasonga’s language, in Stump’s translation from the French, is at once intimate and impersonal. Her stories are almost all narrated by children, whose early exile from home and family heightens their disorientation in the world while denying them ways to cope. In the final story, “Grief,” a young woman living in France doesn’t know how to mourn the family she has left behind. She begins attending the funerals of strangers, becoming “a parasite of their grief.” Yet when she returns to Rwanda, she finds no catharsis there; no family members are alive to grieve with her. The devastation in Mukasonga’s stories is only amplified by the short story form. “Igifu” is notably slim, as though to suggest all that still hasn’t been told.
WHERE THE WILD LADIES ARE
By Aoko Matsuda
Translated by Polly Barton
269 pp. Soft Skull. Paper, $16.95.
Each story in “Where the Wild Ladies Are” updates a traditional Japanese folk tale for our contemporary world. The result is delightfully uncanny. Matsuda finds her wild ladies in strange and urbane poses, as the unrelenting ghosts of Japanese legend now don Adidas tracksuits, shop at Dean & DeLuca and hum along to Beyoncé. You might mistake them for someone you know, except for the fact that they come from the afterlife — shape-shifting wives and foxes back to haunt the living.
Matsuda’s retellings are feminist with a vengeance. In “The Jealous Type,” a woman with a “wild curiosity” is praised for her ferociously possessive streak. The story ends in a comedic turn, when we realize that she is being buttered up by a ghost recruiter. “For a person of your gifts,” the recruiter says, “we don’t feel any training will be necessary and hope to welcome you into our team immediately.” Corporate speak runs throughout “Where the Wild Ladies Are,” heightening its absurdism while gesturing toward the sinister.
A ghost previously punished for her inability to produce breast milk is saved by the invention of formula. Another who was killed by her husband with poisoned face cream has now reinvented herself as a successful lifestyle blogger. These are ghosts who lean in.
Yet just as this brave new world allows these women to grow wild, it also castrates out-of-work men. These stories, deftly translated by Barton, touch on a recession specific to Japan, though the language of neoliberal precarity and gig work will be familiar to many.
A SENSE OF THE WHOLE
By Siamak Vossoughi
177 pp. Orison. Paper, $18.
The 31 stories in “A Sense of the Whole” are radically short. Most fall under five pages, with some running no more than two. Individual titles resemble those of parables — “The Deal,” “The New Man” — as if to telegraph their aphoristic plots. In “Proverbs,” an Iranian-American couple puzzles over their daughter’s homework, in which she must explain the meaning of English idioms. A teacher in “Sharpness” considers two classes of schoolboys: one allowed to play gun games, and the other not. Rather than come down on either side, the teacher takes up the gun as a subject for a writerly thought experiment. “There was no getting around the fact that writers had to know who they were in relation to guns.”
Vossoughi’s prose is laconic. His elliptical sentences isolate English words and sayings so as to make them newly strange. In a story titled “You Are My Brother,” an Arab and an American walk into an Irish coffee shop and debate war in the Middle East by repeating “You are my brother” to each other. The exchange is productive on an interpersonal level, though what it implies for impending war remains unclear. As the Irish shopkeeper reflects: “That thing with calling each other ‘my brother,’ where were they really going to take that, anyway? Where were they really going to go with it?”
These are moral tales with uncertain answers. One might read them as anecdotal for the Iranian-American experience, but rendered in Vossoughi’s epigrammatic prose they ultimately unfold through the language of the universal. Each lights on a minor encounter — between strangers, neighbors, lovers — and what emerges is the sense that anyone you meet has a story.
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